Riding in a self-driving car is the best way to end CES 2020
After a week at an event that bombards you with the latest and greatest tech amid the hullaballoo of Las Vegas, an autonomous car ride provides some much-needed quiet time.
Steven EwingFormer managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Between the onslaught of new products at CES 2020 and the sights and sounds of the Las Vegas Strip, this week has been an assaulting level of sensory overload. CES is a great event, with hundreds of things that make you say "wow!" or "WTF?!" or "eww." And for me, the best way to close the books on this madness is to enjoy a few quiet minutes of reflection in the ultimate goal of so many of the automotive technologies Roadshow writes about: the all-seeing, all-knowing, self-driving car.
That term "self-driving" is used way too freely. No matter what your best friend or some guy on Twitter or a dancing CEO tells you, there are no
for sale today. We have advanced driver-assistance systems that can take some of the stress and guesswork out of a commute. But there isn't a new car available for purchase that'll let you get from A to B without a single instance of driver involvement.
Watch this: CES 2020: The best concept cars of the show
Yet that's exactly what this whole industry seems to be working towards. Whether it's a major automaker, top-tier automotive supplier or a startup you've never heard of, a huge amount of connected-car and autonomous tech is being developed, all with the goal of making our roads safer by removing the biggest hazard to modern motoring: human imperfection. Whether you're eagerly awaiting the day you never have to touch a steering wheel again or you're clutching your manual transmissions (and your pearls) at the thought of little electroblobs driverlessly cruising the streets, this future is inevitable, even if it's likely to take a lot longer than most of us think.
Russia's Yandex is one of the many organizations working to make this self-driving future a reality. The company first launched in 1997 as an internet search engine and entered into the world of autonomous vehicle development in 2017. Three years later, it brought a small fleet of
Toyota Prius V
hybrids to Las Vegas for a few driverless runs through the city. (Don't forget, Nevada was the first state to allow autonomous cars on public roads.)
Yandex's setup is familiar. The Prius V has four lidar sensors sourced from Velodyne, though Yandex says it's working on creating its own. Six radars and six cameras are also along for the ride, meaning there really isn't anything this Prius V can't detect. Yandex has driven 1.75 million autonomous miles over the past three years, and will soon announce a partnership with
to create self-driving prototypes based on the new
The ride around Las Vegas is familiar, too. Once I get in the back of the Prius V, a test loop appears on a tablet screen, and I press the "OK" button to tell the car to go. A safety engineer is required, and he's riding shotgun, but he doesn't say a word the whole time. The Prius V autonomously pulls out of the Hard Rock Hotel parking garage and onto public roads. Within seconds, it's met with a lane closure for construction, and smoothly drives into the would-be left-turn lane to get around the cones. The whole loop takes about 20 minutes, the car perfectly negotiating lane changes, left-hand turns at blinking yellow lights and aggressive drivers cutting in front of me -- the typical heavy-traffic stuff. But about half-way through the ride, it starts to feel different.
Every other time I've been in an autonomous development car, it's been with no less than three other people onboard. There's usually an engineer in the driver's seat, another in the passenger seat and I'm in the back with a PR person sitting next to me. The engineers up front are constantly explaining what the car is doing, drowning me in facts and figures and generally hyping up the whole experience. "See, the car knew it had to change lanes!" "Isn't this amazing? It handled that construction zone without a problem!" I get it, the car is freaking driving itself. I promise I am not trying to downplay this technological marvel.
But in the Yandex prototype, it's quiet. Just me and my thoughts (and a guy who isn't saying anything). And at this moment, it all starts to feel very... ordinary. Like I'm just riding in a Prius V taxi, minus the bad music or the driver who's either talking at me about something I don't care about or, maybe worse, to someone on the phone. Once again, the car is freaking driving itself, but no one's telling me about it. I'm autonomously negotiating Las Vegas traffic and all I can hear are my fingers tapping out a rhythm on my knee. It's delightfully dull.
I love driving, but this is the stuff about self-driving cars that really interests me. I truly value my alone time in the car, but there's something to be said for having that alone time where I don't even have to think about driving, when I can just totally relax. There's luxury in that kind of quiet time, and that's exactly what I'm getting here.
For the record, I'm a huge proponent of public transportation. I love light rail trains and bus systems, and I'm pumped about all the new transportation initiatives taking place all around the US -- especially where I live in Los Angeles. But I'm still sharing a train with a bunch of other people, and I've got to walk half a mile to get to the station (because I'm not taking one of those goddamn scooters).
If I could come home from a long trip and just sink into the back seat of a quiet, autonomous car, all by myself, that'd be an amazing privilege. After a week bombarded by the noise of CES and Las Vegas, it's a similar moment of repose. I am absolutely not ready to give up my sports cars, but if this is what all this automotive tech at CES is working towards, I definitely can't say I'm opposed.